Johnny Mercer wrote, but did you know he sang?
Johnny Mercer is one of the most celebrated lyricists in American pop music, and it’s no wonder when you consider just a fraction of his more than 1,000 songs: “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Moon River” and “Blues in the Night.”
But there’s another valuable side of Mercer that is showcased in a delightful and revealing CD boxed set from Mosaic Records: Mercer the singer.
The three-disc package contains 79 mostly jazz-flavored selections drawn chiefly from Mercer’s Capitol recordings in the ‘40s, and he proves to be every bit as sophisticated and witty a vocalist as he was a lyricist (and sometimes composer).
Producers Scott Wenzel and Billy Vera chose to open the collection with Mercer’s swinging 1942 rendition of Jerome Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me,” presumably because it is the earliest of the recordings in the set.
But the number is also an ideal introduction to Mercer’s stylish mix of informality and skillful craft. When you first hear him on the ballad, you are reminded a bit of Frank Sinatra -- the careful phrasing and smooth flow. As the track proceeds, however, Mercer’s approach feels closer to Bing Crosby’s more casual style.
From this relatively mainstream beginning, Mercer moves in consistently surprising and inventive directions. In the liner notes, vocalist Margaret Whiting calls the collection, which includes nine previously unreleased tracks, the “marvelously uninhibited side” of Mercer, and she’s right on target.
“Mosaic Select: Johnny Mercer”
The back story: Mercer was born in Georgia but headed for New York as a young man to pursue acting. He soon switched to singing and songwriting and moved on to Hollywood, where he had his greatest success. Eighteen of Mercer’s songs were nominated for Academy Awards, and four of them won, including “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” (with Hoagy Carmichael) and “Days of Wine and Roses” (with Henry Mancini).
Mercer also enjoyed considerable success as a recording artist, including four No. 1 singles on Capitol, which he cofounded with Glenn Wallichs and Buddy DeSylva. Among those hits were “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (written with Harry Warren) and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (with Harold Arlen). Mercer died in 1976 at the age of 66.
The music: There are only 12 Mercer songs in the set, but two of them illustrate nicely the way Mercer, the writer and singer, loved having fun with words. It’s hard to listen to some of the lyrics to “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” without smiling.
After pointing out the benefits of a positive attitude, Mercer declares:
To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark.
What did they do, just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said, we better
Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-i-nate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.
At the same time, Mercer wrote what Sinatra has called the greatest saloon song ever: “One for My Baby” (also with Arlen). Mercer’s lyrics are so intimate and efficient, slipping in such exquisite rhymes as “episode,” “code,” “explode” and “road” without detracting from the intimate, downbeat mood. The opening lines:
It’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place except you and me
So, set ‘em up, Joe, I got a little story you oughta know
We’re drinkin’, my friend, to the end of a brief episode
Make it one for my baby and one more for the road.
Between those cornerstones, Mercer moves all over the place in the set, from “G.I. Jive,” which throws his own rhymes at you with the force of an NBA slam dunk, to the fun in his voice as he weaves his way through Sammy Fain-Jack Yellen’s “Never Make Eyes (At the Gal With the Guys Who Are Bigger Than You).”
How could anyone resist?
Further listening: “Johnny Mercer: The Capitol Collector’s Series” on Capitol focuses on Mercer’s pop hits, while “Two of Kind,” on East/West and featuring Mercer in duets with Bobby Darin, is a favorite of hard-core Mercer and Darin fans.
Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues and other historical pop music items.